From August 2 – 5, I had the privilege of attending the 2015 Summer Policy Institute (SPI) hosted by Oklahoma Policy Institute. Taking place at the OU-Tulsa Schusterman Campus, the 50 or so attendees were a very diverse group of students from across the state, ranging from undergraduate first years to non-traditional students and PhD candidates. The four day conference focused on the most important policy issues facing Oklahoma, such as fiscal and budget challenges, hunger and poverty, education, elections, and healthcare, just to name a few.
The range of panel topics and panelists who participated was incredibly impressive. SPI attendees heard from some of the most prominent community leaders and state officials, including Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Secretary of State Chris Benge, Cherokee Principal Chief Bill John Baker, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma ACLU Director Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director of TEEM Kris Steele, and many others. The showing of state leadership present was inspiring, especially for a room full of individuals who were interested in making significant policy changes in Oklahoma.
To try to summarize the whole conference here would take far too long, but I wanted to share a few takeaways from some of the sessions I found most essential to my work here at CAIR Oklahoma (CAIR-OK).
#1. Changing public policy requires personal investment and relationships.
While CAIR-OK is not a political organization, we are often very concerned with the policy initiatives of our state. Indeed, we face a political climate where some of our state elected officials are unwelcoming and hostile towards the Oklahoma Muslim community. Two panels at SPI focused specifically on how to affect change with legislators. During both panels it was reiterated that it is personal contact and relationships that often have the most impact. Some state and local legislators will change their vote on an issue if even as few as 15 of their constituents contact them and take the time to talk about their position. In today’s political climate, it can feel like we are insignificant and have little opportunity to persuade policymakers. Here at CAIR-OK we are lucky to have developed strong relationships with several of our state legislators, and we encourage you to do the same.
#2. Our voting statistics are terrible and something has to change.
In the 2014 election, during which we re-elected Governor Mary Fallin and added more Republicans from the far reaches of the right wing, voter turnout was a mere 40.7 percent of registered voters. This number is a bit misleading because it does not account for those individuals who are eligible to vote but unregistered. When the number is adjusted for eligible voters, voter turnout in Oklahoma drops to a mere 29 percent. The reality about elections is that it is our local and state elections that often matter the most in terms of policy that directly affects our lives and it is precisely those local and state elections in which people are the least likely to vote.
As the Oklahoma Muslim community begins to find our voice in the public policy arena, we must make sure that all of our community members are registered to vote and understand the impact of their participation – especially at the local level.
#3. The problems we face as Oklahomans are intersectional.
Oklahoma faces extremely low educational attainment, limited access to healthcare, high rates of poverty, high rates of domestic violence, high infant mortality rates – the list of challenges continues at great length. But the most important thing to remember is that none of these challenges are isolated. We are all connected. To quote Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.” As we work as a community to improve healthcare and education, we also help eliminate poverty and food insecurity. This intersectional understanding also means acknowledging that even if some of the problems are not widespread in our community, it does not mean they are not present or at the very least affecting the broader, more widespread community.
For me, the biggest takeaway from SPI was this: despite our varying identities, religions, and experiences, we are all Oklahomans. Yes, our state is a little rough around the edges. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done. But Oklahoma is worth the work and we’re ready to make it happen.
Thank you to the staff of Oklahoma Policy Institute for putting together and wonderful program, and the Farzaneh Family for sponsoring Anna’s attendance.
If you are interested in a more complete summary of the event, click here to view a Storify of Anna’s tweets.
To learn more about Oklahoma Policy Institute, check out http://okpolicy.org/